Russian Archaeologists, Colonial Administrators, and the “Natives” of Turkestan: Revisiting the History of Archaeology in Central Asia

Abstract

Working in a context suffused with distrust towards local populations, inherited from precolonial times, the first European or Russian scholars, explorers, and artists who were interested in the ancient history of Central Asia did not carry out any archaeological study without the assistance of “natives”. These were, however, criticized for their “ignorance”, their “lack of taste for beautiful things”, their “delusion” in relation with the historical data, or their “vandalism” towards vestiges. Despite this, they were the ones who lead the modern scholars to the sites or monuments, did the actual work on the excavations, and provided the collectors and the organizers of exhibitions with archaeological finds, while generally remaining unnamed. With time, the propagation in Turkestan of a “taste for History” developed the market of antiquities and produced indigenous “amateurs” in archaeology who appropriated an appreciation system of the vestiges that had been crafted in Europe. This turn is doubly interesting: on the one hand, it shows the ambiguity of the process of incorporating local epistemic expertise in the knowledge of “colonizers”; on the other hand, it underlines how local scholars appropriated Western approaches to patrimonialization while denigrating the attitude of their own Central-Asiatic milieu towards the past.

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